Excitement was building Wednesday at NASA headquarters and at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, with the launch of what's described as the most technologically advanced rover ever sent to Mars just one month away.
The JPL-built rover Perseverance includes an array of scientific instruments, and it will make aerospace history -- carrying a mini helicopter that will become the first ever flown on another planet, and collecting rocks and soil that will eventually be returned to Earth, another space exploration first from another planet.
Lori Glaze, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, called the mission "the first step in the first-ever round-trip mission to another planet in our solar system."
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"Scientists have wanted a sample of Mars to study for generations," Glaze said. "We have meteorites on Earth that came from Mars, but it's not the same as getting an actual sample of pristine Mars rocks and soil to study. And now we're at a point where we can begin to attempt this amazing feat."
The historic recovery of Mars soil and rock samples will be done in partnership with the European Space Agency. According to Glaze, the Perseverance rover will drill and collect samples, then store them on the surface of the planet.
"In 2026, a 'fetch rover' will be launched to collect those samples and bring them to a rocket that will launch them into orbit around Mars," Glaze said. "Another orbiter will rendezvous and capture those samples for safe delivery to Earth."
The rover's primary science mission is to astrobiological -- the "study of how life comes to be, environments that support life and the search to see if life exists anywhere beyond Earth," she said.
"The rover's instruments will also look for evidence of ancient habitable environments and monitor environmental conditions to help us better understand how to protect future human explorers," Glaze said.
The rover is scheduled to launch in the early morning hours of July 20 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It is expected to reach Mars about seven months later, landing in Mars' Jezero Crater.
Katie Stack Morgan, a deputy project scientist at JPL, said the crater is home to "one of the best preserved deltas on the surface of Mars." She said the location will give the rover access to some of the oldest rocks in the solar system.
The study of those samples will address "some big-picture questions," she said, including "how did the surface and climate of Mars evolve over time, how do rocky planets form and differentiate, and, of course, was life ever present on Mars."
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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the Perseverance mission remained a top priority for the agency throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
"This mission was one of two missions that we protected to make sure we were going to be able to launch in July," he said. "And the reason that's important is because of the alignment. When you talk about Earth and Mars being on the same side of the sun, that happens once every 26 months. So it's very expensive if we have to take Perseverance and put it back into storage for a period of two years, it could cost half a billion dollars.
"So this is an important mission for a whole host of reasons," he said. "But what I really hope is that people watch this mission and that they are inspired that we know that we can strive and achieve even in the midst of very challenging times."
He said one of the most exciting payloads on the 2,000-pound, SUV-sized rover is a small helicopter known as Ingenuity. The copter will allow a wider exploration of the planet's surface, and if will mark the first time a helicopter has been flown "on another world."
"That's something that's never been done before in human history," Bridenstine said.
He said the Perseverance mission is a key stepping stone in a larger journey.
"We have been given a directive to go to Mars with humans, and in order to adhive that we're doing two things," he said. "Number one, we're building an architecture at the moon, where people are going to be able to sustain for long periods of time. ... The other thing we're doing is we're moving forward with these robotic precursor missions so one day when we send humans to Mars, we're doing to know where to go to get the absolute best science and data that we can get.''